Fall 2011

Fast-track freshmen

AP credits don't guarantee a quick race to the finish

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Joshua Paley started at Binghamton University as a freshman in fall 2010.

By his second semester, he was a sophomore.


Paley is not unusual. That’s because he and more than half of his incoming classmates started college with Advanced Placement credits. The average number of AP credits was 15 — about the same number of credits a full-time freshman earns in a semester.

For all of the ways a university sorts students — by program, major, residential community — the category that really counts is academic year, as determined by credits.

Paley found out that having sophomore standing as a first-year student gave him an edge.

“It’s a big advantage for registration for classes. It’s a bit of a competition to register for the class you want and at the time you want,” he says.

AP classes are designed to give students challenging, college-level work while they are still in high school. After completing an AP course, a student has the option of being tested on the material. A grade of 3, 4 or 5 means the student can ask her college to accept the AP credits for college credits in lieu of class work.

For parents, it can be appealing to think that a child going to college with a semester’s worth of credits might graduate a semester — and a
tuition payment — early. Some students do, but at Binghamton, most use AP credits to enrich their college experience, not shorten it.

“They use the credits as a cushion to advance themselves,” says Cheryl Brown ’74, MA ’88, recently retired from a decade as director of admissions. “They can study abroad, do a more extensive internship, do honors classes in their major or complete a double major. These are kids who love learning.”

Maturity doesn’t always match academics

Binghamton is rich with AP learners. In fall 2010, 59 percent of incoming freshmen had college or AP credits. And in a list of the 200 colleges and universities receiving the most AP scores, as compiled by the College Board, Binghamton ranks 130th.

All freshmen start off on an equal footing, but AP credits quickly become stepping stones to other opportunities.

The more credits you have, the earlier you can sign up for your second and subsequent years of on-campus housing, says Sharon O’Neill, associate director of residential life.

And, as Paley discovered, there’s the coveted opportunity to register early for classes. “It gives you a leg up if you can move into the next level faster,” says Terry Webb, assistant vice president for student life.

The perks aren’t all for the students. A department that doesn’t have to teach an introductory-level class to every freshman can put its resources elsewhere.

“Harpur College plans its course offerings carefully, and AP credit influences how many sections we offer in certain courses,” says Jennifer Jensen, associate dean for academic affairs. “We would have to offer more sections of calculus if so many students did not come with AP credit in this area.”

Professors appreciate the academic skills of AP scholars. “We have had many department chairs tell us that our students are capable of doing work at a much higher level than at other colleges at which they have taught,” Brown says.

Academic skill, however, isn’t always on the same plane as maturity.

“Some of the brightest students are young in their social skills and not very mature in their conscientiousness,” says Susan Strehle, distinguished service professor of English, general literature and rhetoric, and chief reader of the AP English Literature test. “What you ideally want is for academic skill to go together with maturity and responsibility, and in the best of all worlds it would.”

Learning that so many Binghamton freshmen are on the fast track to becoming sophomores has led the University to tweak a few policies in an effort to balance a first-year student’s maturity level with a second-year student’s privileges.

Some opportunities cannot be accelerated by AP credits. Joining a fraternity or sorority, keeping a car on campus and applying for some scholarships require a student to have a particular number of Binghamton University credits. Those are credits earned for actual class work on campus.

“While they may have academically completed things,” Webb says, “the reality is they have not had the on-campus living experience, which is valuable in many ways that contribute to graduation.”


Distinguished Service Professor Susan Strehle is in charge of ensuring more than 1 million essays for the AP English Literature exam are graded fairly and consistently. Click here to read her story.